Digital Divide in Sub Saharan Africa

Table of Contents


The Organization for Economic Cooperation and development (OECD) 2001 refers to the economic divide as, “… gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.” On his part, Pedus (2007) views the digital divide as, “the comparative gap between the access to and the utilization of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) among human populations in developing and developed countries (international digital divide) and in fact within the developing countries themselves (international digital divide). In most cases, the digital divide is viewed from different perspectives. To have a clear understanding of the phenomenon, several questions can be asked. For example, where and why does the digital divide occur? What leads to the establishment of the situation? How wide is the phenomenon spread? What are its long term and short term implications? How can this problem be alleviated? This report will therefore try to answer these questions in relation to Sub-Saharan Africa.

There are several indicators that allow for measuring of the digital divide, the main indicator being communications infrastructure. Other forms of indicators include the availability of computers, other alternatives which include phones and TVs and access to the Internet. Apart from the indicators of a digital divide within a given region, there are factors that lead to the phenomenon. Among them are the average education level of the inhabitants and their economic muscles. These two factors play a great role in the digital divide within households. In addition, household type and its size, the race and linguistic characteristics of the family, gender, age and the location of the household also play an important role in the determining of the digital divide between households. One notable pattern is that while the household income PC and Internet access difference is large, the low income households are also experiencing an increase in the access to information (Sparks, 2007).

From a regional perspective, other indicators play a role in the establishment of the digital divide. Among them are country profiles, the availability of business organizations and individuals who take the advantage of the Internet and the new developments in Information Technology (OECD 2001: 5).

The Situation in Sub-Saharan Africa

It is evident that the international digital divide and the intranational digital divide in Africa is wide and continues to grow even wider. While many scholars view the embrace of technology and spirited access to ICT as tools through which development can be accelerated, it is sad to understand that the same effort has not been put in understanding the basic elements that determine the differences in the digital divide. This has ended up as an impediment to the effort to close the gap. The socio economic and political challenges in sub-Saharan Africa which play an important role in defining the digital gap have remained un-tackled issues in the effort to bridge the gap. While more effort shall be directed towards bridging the digital divide gap in sub Saharan Africa, not much shall be achieved unless the perennial challenges like poverty, political instability, social strife, diseases, low levels of education etc are addressed squarely (Pedus 2007: 1).

As a result, the relative gap between Africa and other countries, especially Europe and North America has been extremely big and continues to widen each passing day. One of the indicators used to define the digital divide is the access to telecommunication. This marks the very basic symptom of digital divide. This is defined by the number of people within every hundred that have an access line. This indicates the country’s level of Universal services to telecommunication. By the year 1998, the countries constituting the OECD accounted for a 64.5% of the world’s 851 million access lines. On their part, the countries that were characterized by a low GDP boasted of a mere 1.6 access lines per every 100 people. The penetration of the lines has shown improvements in most parts of the world except sub Saharan Africa over the 90s (OECD 2001: 7).

The Internet marks another indicator to the digital divide. Despite its great benefits, the internet seems to exhibit the greatest divide between countries. Statistics show that the number of hosts in the whole world in 2000 was 94 million. As predicted, the greatest percentage, 95.6% of this was in OECD countries. The rest belonged to non OECD countries. While the OECD regions have experienced great developments, non OECD countries which have a relatively high GDP per capita have equaled the development rate of the OECD countries. While North America and Europe accounted for 89% of all the Internet hosts by the year 2000, other countries like Taipei, Israel, Hong Kong and Singapore accounted for 52% of the remaining percentage. Further still, South Africa, Argentina, Malaysia and Brazil accounted for 24% of the remaining while the rest of the world including sub-Saharan Africa sharing the remaining small percentage. Africa accounts for a mere 0.25% of all the internet hosts in the world. Most of these are found in South Africa. However the growth rate is very minimal (OECD 2001: 8).

Zanker (2001) further points out the digital divide between the developed countries and the developing countries. In his report, he points out that by the year 2001; only 15% of the world population had access to a telephone line. He goes further to point out that 25 countries in the world had less than one person within their population being accessible to telephone lines. Among these 25 countries, 20 were marked to be from Africa. In developing countries, statistics pointed out that of every hundred people, only 6.9 people were accessible to a telephone line. This is a great contrast to the developed countries where per every hundred people; there were 59 with telephone lines. To be specific, sub Saharan countries were tying with south Asian countries in the last position of the number of telephone wires per hundred people. The highest in Africa was 13.8 telephone lines per every hundred people in South Africa while Uganda had 0.3 telephone lines per every hundred people. Sad to say, of this number of telephone lines, half of them were situated in the capital cities which were hosts of about 10% of the total population. Zanker further points out that the accessibility to computer was concentrated in the developed countries while the developing countries trailed in the same. For example, he highlights the fact that in the year 2000, in the United States of America’s population, 57% of them had a computer with the European Union accounting for 29% of their population having computers. Last on the list is sub Saharan Africa where less than one percent of the total population had a computer.

Zanker (2001) further highlights the digital divide in sub Saharan Africa. In his statistical data, rich industrialized countries account for the largest percentage of Internet users. The two developed regions of North America and Western Europe account for a total of 70% of all internet users world wide. In the Caribbean and Latin America, the population that uses the Internet is approximated at 3.2%. again, South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa mark the least the least number of Internet users sharing between them a mere 0.4%. The greater number of these is in South Africa. Removal of these leaves other African countries accounting for as little as 0.01% of the total population that is accessible to the Global Data Network.

To sum up the statistical data on the situation in sub Saharan Africa, we could highlight the statistics provided by the United Nations Report on ICT where the total population in Africa was estimated at 816 million people. Of these people, radio was accessible to 1 out of every 4 people accounting for 205 million people, 62 million people were accessible to TV while24 million people had a mobile phone. 20 million people, representing one out of every forty people had access to fixed lines, 5.9 million people had a PC, 5 million people were accessible to the Internet, and only 2 million people representing one out of every 400 people had pay TV services (UN Report on ICT 2002).

The statistics above indicate that there has been a marked stagnancy in the development of the use of ICTs in Africa as compared to any other parts of the world. In fact, the little notable improvement has only been noted in South Africa and other northern African countries as compared to the sub Saharan countries. This leaves several questions to be asked. What are the reasons that lead to such slow speed in the development of information technology? Are there factors that are present in North America and Europe that are not present in sub-Saharan countries and vice versa which could be contributing to the widening of the digital divide? To answer these questions, let’s identify the factors that hinder the development in ICT and how they have implicated on sub Saharan Africa (Melkote, 1991).

Factors Leading to the Great Gap

Several factors are attributed to the existence of this great gap. Pedus (2007) points out several of these factors. Among the mentioned factors are poverty, illiteracy concerning technology, inability to understand a foreign language, traditional beliefs, and lack of support from the government, generation gap and general disinterest in embracing change. All these factors play a great role in the widening of the digital divide between sub Saharan Africa and other regions of the world. Looking at the factors it is unarguable that there are those that greatly implicate this issue as compared to others. These are factors that play a direct role and at the same time play an indirect role which both ends up in the widening of the gap. These are factors that could contribute in the formulation of other factors which implicate the digital divide. There are three factors that are viewed as the major factors. These are poverty, inadequate government involvement and support and education. Pedus points out that poverty contributes to poor infrastructure that does not promote the ICT industry. It also hampers on the ability to purchase technology or pay for the services offered by the stakeholders. In addition, poverty can also contribute to lack of electricity which is a very close associate to the ICT industry. On its part, the poor support from the government was identified as one of the greatest contributors to the digital divide. This was pointed out by the United Nations as a major cause of poverty in Nigeria. Unrepresentative political systems that were marred by lack of democracy were the root causes of poverty in Nigeria and hence led to the development of corruption which directly led to macro economic policies being mismanaged, infrastructural facilities that were below quality, negligent provision of social services etc. all these are factors that can greatly implicate on the digital divide. Finally, illiteracy in modern technology application and use has also been identified as great contributors in the digital divide. In Nigeria, for example, the numeracy level was estimated at 57% of the total population. It was estimated to be even worse in other sub Saharan countries.


Zanker (2001) argues that the lack of connection to pay TVs and fiber optic connections to the internet is not an affair of just connections and infrastructure. It implies inadequate supply of information. The digital divide causes an imbalance in access to knowledge and information. These two are referred to by Kofi Annan as quoted by Zanker as “the real preconditions to all progress.” An improvement in the effort to bridge the digital gap would mean an improvement in the social development and sustainable development for the third world countries.

This will further assist third world countries to integrate into the global economy by avoiding the peripheral position. This will also improve the developmental progress by moving them from backwardness to a more enlightened state. As Zanker argues, it could assist the third world countries to easily move from being totally agrarian states to information societies. This could be achieved through speedy bypassing of the stages that exist in between.

On his part, Pedus (2007: 1) identifies several economic and social developments that could be positively improved if the digital divide was bridged. He purports that the bridging of the divide would lead to a great improvement in the development of sectors like international commerce, health sector in terms of e-health, education sector including e-education, strengthening of the criminal justice both national and international, and finally improvement of the democratic systems of the developing countries etc. all these are without doubt the most important aspects for sustainable development of any country. This means that with a bridge of the digital divide, the third world countries will be given opportunity to equally compete on the international market through access to appropriate information in terms of market and capital.


Pedus (2007: 3) argues that poverty alleviation is the key to bridging the digital divide. This has been seen as one of the most pressing issues within the developing countries. To achieve this, there will be need for education which must also include ICT education to teachers from the lowest to the highest levels of education institutions. By arming the teachers with such knowledge, the chances of the same passing down to younger generations who will pass through these institutions are high. With most of the sub-Saharan countries being faced by dictatorship, civil wars, diseases, corruption etc, there is a need for the emergence of strong and effective democratic institutions which will allow for equitable distribution and effective utilization of natural resources and resources from donors in the development of the country. This can only be achieved through leadership that is accountable and transparent. With such leadership, private and public sectors would partner to promote development in the relevant sectors that would promote sustainable development. In addition, a well organized use of natural and donor resources would promote infrastructure, which on its part is essential for bridging the digital divide. On its part, education sector will also be promoted through access to filtered content for students and also enhanced interaction of students all over the globe leading to sharing. All these will be relevant for growth.

On his part, Zanker (2000: 11) offers three possible solutions to bridging the digital divide. He advocates fro the improvement of connectivity through improvement of infrastructure. In addition to this, he proposes for improvement in the capacity. This can be achieved through advocating for people to use the information offered by ICT development for their own benefits and interests. Finally, he proposes that content on the ICTs should be constructed in a way that would promote development for the developing countries. Achieving these goals could be a great hurdle. It therefore calls for an alliance that would be aimed at the promotion of e-development.


From the literature highlighted above, it is notable that the digital divide is great and that it might continue increasing unless appropriate measures are taken. Sub Saharan Africa which ranks among the last in all forms of accessibility to the ICTs seems to be a result of political policies that are formed by weak democratic institutions. This leads to poverty, poor infrastructure, diseases, conflicts and wars, etc. all these are impediments to development of ICT. As a result, it leads to the widening of the digital divide (Reeves, 1993).

To promote a bridging effort for the divide, it will call for improvement of connectivity, improvement of capacity and the improvement of the content. All these could be achieved if the financial situation of the third world countries were improved. To improve the financial capacity of the countries, it will call for efforts to eradicate poverty. And this can only be achieved through the development of strong democratic institutions that will promote the cooperation of private and public sectors in the improvement of education. Strengthening of these institutions will also mean the strengthening of utilization of natural resources and donor resources. Without these efforts, the digital divide will continue widening and will mark a weakness on the platform of international cooperation.


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